1 Corinthians 7:1-16: "When to Not 'Touch' a Woman/Wife"

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Let's start 1 Corinthians 7 by simply reading verse 1: (1) Now, concerning the things which you wrote, "[it is] good for a man a woman/wife not to touch." This sentence is almost certainly a Corinthian slogan that Paul is quoting. Paul not only specifically says, "concerning the things which you wrote," but more importantly, he doesn't actually believe this sentence. He writes this, in order to correct it and qualify it. And he will correct and qualify this slogan for the entire length of the chapter. Now, how we read chapter 7 as a whole depends, in large part, in how we understand this slogan. What exactly is it that the Corinthians believe? What exactly is the problem? Let's start with the last part of the slogan: "Not to touch." This is a euphemism to describe sex. And a number of English Bibles just go ahead and translate it this way, to help you. Where the slogan starts to get a little muddy, is with the Greek word I've translated "woman/wife." In Greek, γῠνή can refer to either a woman or a wife. It's ambiguous, by itself. English Bibles all have to make a decision when they come to this word. I guess it would be cheating to use a slash mark. And so they all choose the broader translation, "woman." But I think it helps us, off the bat, to understand that this slogan is ambiguous. So what's happening in Corinth? What does this slogan mean? What I think, is that some Corinthian Christians have decided that "touching" people is always a bad thing. Possibly, they think they've reached the point spiritually, where they think they are mostly above normal, daily, physical concerns. They view "touching" as something beneath them-- as something they used to need/desire. But now, through the Holy Spirit, they have become Spiritual people, focused on Spiritual things (maybe Gal. 5:16). The Corinthians, in believing this, are worlds apart from the average Christian. We find ourselves hearing this, and not really understanding it. So let me try to put you in their shoes: In most churches, many of the people attending don't really seem to understand what it means that Jesus is Lord. They don't wake up each day, committing themselves to God. They don't live self-sacrificially, understanding that they have died to themselves. And they will tell you this, up front. They don't hide this. They'll tell you they aren't the best Christians. But in every church, there are people who almost seem to glow. You talk with them, and you can tell they hunger and thirst for God and his righteousness. They are filled with joy; they genuinely love God and people. It's God's name, and his kingdom, and his will that are important to them. And what these people have done is build their entire lives around Jesus, stripping off everything that entangles them. I think the Corinthians Paul is quoting in 1 Cor. 7:1 are these type of Christians. But the problem these Christians have, is that they've gone a step further. Imagine that you are this type of Christian, and you are married with kids. You get up in the morning, and you long to serve God wholeheartedly. But your kids are hungry. Your husband wants a lunch packed. The house is a mess. And you have dirty laundry to wash in every room of the house. And you look at your life, and tell yourself, "I could do so much more if I was single. I'd have so much more time. I could serve God so much more effectively." Especially, if your husband isn't a Christian. You feel like he's ruining your life. Christianity is a constant battle. Every dollar you give to the church; every hour that you serve, is a sore spot between you and your husband. And to top it off, if you were a Corinthian wife, in Roman culture, you are dishonoring your husband by not serving his gods. You'd bring shame to him. The bottom line is that your marriage is really hard. You just want out, so you can serve Jesus. Or, maybe you're the guy. You think to yourself, I wish I was single. I have to work so many hours to provide for my family. But if I was like Paul, I could make just enough tents to survive. I could work 20-30 hours a week, and spend the rest of my time evangelizing or teaching or serving in some other way. You eyeball your wife, and you think, "She is keeping me from really serving God." For others, who aren't married, they are trying to make a difficult choice. Is it better to stay single, and not "touch" a woman? Or is it better to get married? What they want, above all else, is to serve God. And they look at married people serving, and single people serving, and they think, "people like Paul can do far more for God, than married people." So that, I think, is what's happening in Corinth. You have married people who feel like marriage gets in the way of God. They are considering divorcing their spouses so they can devote themselves to God. AND/OR, they feel like "touching" their spouse distracts them from God. It's beneath them. And, on top of that, they are maybe pressuring single people in the church not to get married. They are warning them about the dangers of marriage for people who are dedicated/holy to God. So that's the framework that I've come to, for helping myself to understand this chapter. Parts of this framework are possibly wrong-- there is a shocking amount of disagreement among scholars over this chapter. But it's what I've settled on for now. So let's reread verse 1: (1) Now, concerning the things which you wrote, "[it is] good for a man a woman/wife not to touch." So this is a very broad slogan. So broad, in fact, that you can't make a simple response. So what Paul does in verse 2, is reframe this issue and narrow it to talk specifically about marriage. "Is it better to be married (and be touching your spouse), or to be single?" Verse 2: (2) Now, because of sexual immorality, each man his own woman/wife must have, and each woman/wife her own husband must have. In a vacuum, it's good not to touch a woman. In a vacuum, it's maybe better to be single, than to be married. But life is not lived in a vacuum. Paul begins verse 2 with a reason frame-- "because of sexual immorality." Life is lived under the constant threat of sexual immorality. And because of sexual immorality, Paul commands everyone to have a spouse. Each man must have a wife-- not a man, and not more than one woman. Each man must have... a.... wife. And each woman must have a husband-- not a wife, and not more than one husband. And the verbs here are commands. Paul isn't saying each man "may" have a wife, and each woman "may" have a husband. They must. They must be married. For two weeks in a row, we've talked about the dangers of sexual immorality. Sexually immoral people don't inherit God's kingdom (1 Cor. 6:8-9). They are taken away from the body of Christ (6:15). They sin against their body, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit (6:19). Sexual immorality is a terrible sin, that costs you everything. And so because of sexual immorality-- because of how easy it is to fall into it, and how terrible the consequences are when you do fall-- Paul says everyone must marry. Verse 3: (3) To his woman/wife the husband his obligation must fulfill. Now, likewise, also the woman/wife to her husband. (4) The wife of her own body does not have authority over, but her husband. Now, likewise, also the husband of his own body doesn't have authority over, but his wife. When you are married, part of being married to your spouse is you have fulfill "the obligation." You must "touch" your spouse. This is your duty. It's not supposed to be a difficult duty. It's supposed to be something that makes you happy. But it is an obligation. And this is true for both the husband and the wife. Husbands have to fulfill their obligation to their wife. And, let me add this as delicately as I can: husbands must live in a way, that they are able to fulfill their obligation. In verse 4, Paul talks about how part of entering into a marriage is understanding that you give up authority over your body, and you give that authority to your spouse. You don't get to say "no" when they want to touch you. If you try to say "no," you are stealing from your spouse. You are defrauding them of what is rightfully theirs. And, truthfully, if you love your spouse, and you understand the danger of sexual immorality, you will want them to fulfill their desires with you rather than with something or someone else. In verse 5, Paul offers a single exception to all of this: (5) Do not defraud/deprive one another, except only perhaps by agreement for a time, in order that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and (then) again (in order that) together you may be, in order that the adversary/Satan may not test you because of your lack of self-control. The only exception to the command to fulfill your duty to each other is if the husband and wife both agree, mutually, to devote themselves to prayer for a time. This exception doesn't work unless the husband and wife both agree. If your spouse wants to touch you, you don't get to tell them "no" because you've committed yourself to God. You can't claim that your Spiritual pursuit, or God, is more important than "touching." And Paul immediately adds that this exception is only for a limited time-- you separate, in order that you will come together again. Here, Paul gives yet another reason to touch your spouse-- touching your spouse will protect you from Satan. Verse 6: (6) Now, this I say as a concession, not as a command. There's lots of ways people understand verse 6. What does "this" mean? What I've decided-- and I've changed my mind on this, and I might be wrong-- is that "this" refers to the command to get married. Paul doesn't actually want everyone to marry. When he says this, it's a concession on his part. He's seen too many people try to be single in order to serve God better, and then become sexually immoral. So this has led him to just say, "Get married." In verse 7, Paul writes what he wishes was actually the case: (7) Now, I wish all men/people could be like even myself, but each one his own grace/favor/gift he has from God-- on the one hand, one in this way, on the other hand, one in that way. What Paul means here is (also) debated. But this is what I think it means: Paul wishes that everyone was like him. He understands that a spouse, in many ways, is a distraction. And being married is hard. So the desire to be single, and serve God whole-heartedly, without divided loyalty, is a noble desire. It's good. But it's not for everyone. God has given some people the grace of singleness, and they can truly say that their singleness is a sign of God's favor and blessing. And to others, God has given the grace of marriage. They can point to their spouse, and their kids, and their grandkids, and say that all of these people are a sign of God's favor and blessing. So Paul wishes everyone could be like him. But he understands that God didn't give everyone this grace. To others-- to most people, in fact-- God gave the grace of marriage. And when people try to fight this grace, and resist it, out of the noble desire to serve God whole-heartedly, they end up burning with desire, and then giving into to sexual immorality. In saying some of this, I cheated ahead to verses 8-9: (8) Now, I say to the unmarried/de-married and to the widows, [it is] good for them if they remain as I am. (9) Now, if they aren't controlling themselves, they must marry. For better it is to marry than to be burning. In verses 8-9, Paul tells you how you can know whether or not you should marry. You may want to serve God wholeheartedly, but you need to be honest about how you are living. If you find yourself burning with desire-- if being single is a constant battle of the mind and of the body-- then it's better for you to marry. You must find a spouse. In verse 10, Paul switches gears. Let's go back to the slogan in 7:1 first: "[It is] good for a man a woman/wife not to touch." Here, Paul is going to address people who are already married. We can reframe the issue this way: "If you are married, would it be better for you to get divorced? Are you better off not touching your spouse, and instead leaving them completely so that you can serve God better?" Verse 10-11: (10) Now, to the married I command-- not I, but the Lord-- a wife from her husband must not separate. (11) Now, if indeed she separates, she must remain unmarried or to her husband be reconciled, and a husband [his] wife must not divorce. When Paul says in verse 10, "not I, but the Lord," he is not saying that Jesus gave his this particular word in a vision. He's referring to Jesus' recorded teaching, probably in Mark 10: 10 And he left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again. And again, as was his custom, he taught them. 2 And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” 5 And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife,[a] 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” Jesus is on record as saying, "Don't divorce." But if you do divorce, you can't remarry someone else. Your only two options at that point are to either stay separated, or be reconciled. So understand, if you divorce your spouse, that you are committing to a life of singleness and celibacy. You have Jesus' clear teaching on this; you have to obey him. [As an aside, if your spouse is the one who initiated the divorce, there is nothing here that says you can't get remarried. It matters who initiates the divorce.] This brings us to verse 12. In these verses, Paul addresses a situation not envisioned by Jesus. Jesus taught Jewish husbands and wives, who obeyed the same God and lived under the same covenant. But what happens when someone becomes Jesus' disciple after getting married, and their spouse doesn't also convert? What happens when the marriage is divided, and the couple is unequally yoked? Verse 12: (12) Now, to the rest I say-- I, not the Lord-- if any brother an unbelieving wife has, and she agrees/consents to live with him, he must not divorce her, (13) and a wife, if any has an unbelieving husband, and he agrees/consents to live with her, she must not divorce her husband. If you are in a mixed marriage like this-- mixed religiously, I should add-- and your spouse is willing to somehow make your marriage work, the baseline of Jesus' teaching still applies. You must not divorce your spouse. And if you're in a marriage like this, you know that Paul demanding a nearly impossible thing. Marriage is often hard. But a marriage to an unbeliever belongs to an entirely different level of difficulty. I've known a few people in marriages like this, and it's a strain. Your husband or wife doesn't understand why you waste so much of your time and money on this Christianity thing. Your spouse worships other gods-- this would've been particularly true in Corinth-- and in Corinth, if you (the wife in particular) don't worship and serve your husband's gods, you'd bring him great dishonor. You'd be shameful to him-- an embarrassment. And the more committed you are to serving God, the harder all of this will be. And so what tends to happen, in this type of marriage, is that they fall apart. But if your unbelieving spouse agrees to live with you, and is willing to make the marriage work, you must stay married. Paul is making commands here: You must not divorce your spouse. You must stay married. Why? Why does Paul such a terrible thing of you? Imagine being a Corinthian wife. Your husband has idols scattered around his house. He worships them; he serves them. He praises his gods before every meal, and teaches your children to do the same. He eats meat that had been offered to idols. How can you stay married to someone like that? Paul knows he is insisting on a hard thing. Paul knows he is writing to people who simply want out-- at least at times. And so he strengthens his argument using a "for" statement: For the unbelieving husband is dedicated/sanctified/made holy by his wife, and the unbelieving wife is dedicated/sanctified/made holy by the brother. Since otherwise, your children unclean they are. Now, currently holy they are. Here, Paul gives two additional reasons to stay married. Your unbelieving spouse is made holy through you. And, your children are made holy through you. What does this mean? We find ourselves reading this, and not wanting to try to come to terms with it. This is not a verse that fits our theology. It's the kind of thing that if you heard a pastor say from the pulpit, you'd shake your head and say that it's not just wrong-- it's dangerous. There is nothing in the Greek that's complicated here. The verse is straightforward. But we have to stretch our thinking, to make sense of it. One of the few scholars brave enough to tackle this verse head on is Conzelmann. This is what he writes, in part: "It looks as if holiness is crassly regarded as a thing; it is transferable, without faith (and even baptism) being necessary. There can in fact be no denying the massively thinglike character of the idea." Somehow, if you are a Christian, your holiness seems to cover your spouse, and your children, regardless of whether or not they are also Christians. As we ease into this, let's reread what Paul has said about holiness so far in 1 Corinthians. Paul has already described the Corinthians as a holy/dedicated people in this letter. 1:2: "To the church of God-- the one having been made holy/dedicated in/by Christ Jesus." 6:11: "And these things some of you were, but you were washed, but you were made holy/dedicated, but you were made right in/by the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God." Let's turn also to Romans 15:15-16: Now, more boldly I have written you on some points, as to remind you, because of the grace given to me by God, with the result that I am a servant of Christ Jesus to the nations, serving as a priest the good news of God, in order that the offering of the Gentiles may become acceptable, having been made holy/dedicated by the Holy Spirit." God has given Paul the grace-- the privilege-- of serving Him as a priest. Paul's goal, as a priest, is to make the Gentiles into a people who are an acceptable offering to God. This is only possible through the gospel-- only the gospel can turn idol-worshipping sinners into a people holy/dedicated to God. How does the gospel do this? The gospel is the sword of the Spirit; it is what the Holy Spirit uses to free people from Satan, and give them entrance into God's family (so also Eph. 6:17). So that's how we, as Gentiles, have become holy/dedicated to God (through the gospel, by the Holy Spirit). But if you are married to an unbeliever, how does your holiness extend to cover to them-- as well as to your kids? I think the answer to this has to be rooted in what marriage does. When you are joined to your spouse, the two of you become one (1 Cor. 6:16). This is not just a symbol, or a picture. This is a fact. This is reality. And so when God sees you, the believing spouse, He doesn't just see you. He sees you and your spouse together. He sees one person, not two. And He treats your spouse as someone who is holy/dedicated to Himself. The question is, how far should we push this? To what degree is this true? This is what I think, and I say in all sincerity, you can either take this or leave it. I don't expect you to agree with me: Because of you and your holiness, God gives your spouse grace/favor. He blesses them. He provides for them. And I think what he also does, is protect them from Satan. They are living in a way that naturally makes them vulnerable to Satan. But people under the umbrella of the church are shielded from Satan. There is only so much he can do to them. It's only when people are removed from the church that they are handed over to Satan (1 Cor. 5:4). And your spouse, through your connection to you, falls under the umbrella of the church's holiness, and your holiness. Your spouse shares your Spiritual armor. At least to some degree. But if you divorce your unbelieving spouse, or your spouse divorces you, none of that will be true for them anymore. The two of you are no longer one. Your holiness no longer covers them. God no longer sees you, when he sees your spouse. And so, as you sit there in your unhappy marriage, wanting out, you need to understand what will happen to your spouse. God will no longer see your spouse as someone holy/dedicated to Himself. So that's how holiness maybe works to cover your unbelieving spouse. That might be right. Now let's talk about your kids-- first rereading the verse: For the unbelieving husband is dedicated/sanctified/made holy by his wife, and the unbelieving wife is dedicated/sanctified/made holy by the brother. Since otherwise, your children unclean they are. Now, currently dedicated/holy they are. One of the things that evangelicals struggle with, is the question of how God views their children. Lutherans, Catholics-- people who baptize their babies, basically-- don't ever worry about this. They know God loves their children; they know God views them as part of His family. And they know that at some point, their children will go through confirmation, and make their own decision to stay (or not stay) within God's family. And evangelicals don't have any of that. And so we wonder, how does God view our children? What happens if our children die before they give their allegiance to King Jesus and are baptized? I'm not saying that this verse answers all our questions, but when God looks at your children, what he sees are little people who are dedicated to himself. He sees clean people, and not unclean. And He treats them as such. How far can we push this? Here, we find ourselves wanting to push it farther than we do for the unbelieving spouse. And I can't even pretend to have all the answers here. But let me try explaining it a little differently (but most of this would be true for an unbelieving spouse as well): Your children, if you are a Christian, are growing up inside the kingdom of God, and not outside of it. They have seen God shower you, and them, with blessings. They have seen how good, and faithful, and loving, and powerful God is to them. They know that King Jesus sets people free from everything that holds them captive. They know that Jesus loves them, and welcomes them (Matt. 19:13-14). The kingdom of heaven belongs to people like this. And at some point, your children can no longer piggyback on your holiness and faith. At some point, they have to make that decision for themselves. But in the meantime, God sees them as people who are holy/dedicated to himself. Your children are clean. Verse 15: (15) Now, if the unbelieving one separates, he must be separated. The brother or the sister hasn't been enslaved in such cases. If your spouse isn't willing to stay married, you must let them divorce you. You can't fight this, or try to make it work against their will. Your mixed marriage has been a slavery to you, and in this case, you are freed. And they are freed as well-- in its own way, the marriage has become as difficult for them, as it's become for you. Paul continues: Now, in peace God has called us. For, how do you know, wife, if your husband you will save? Or, how do you know, husband, if your wife you will save? If your spouse isn't a Christian, you live with the hope that this will someday change. You hope the day will come, when they understand how much God loves them, and they repent, and surrender to King Jesus. But there is no guarantee that this will ever happen. And if they want out, because being married to you is hard for them, let them. God has called you to live in peace. So is it good not to touch a woman/wife? We've started to see that this is a complicated question. The answer depends on whether you are single or married. It depends on whether you are married to an unbeliever who is willing to stay married, or not. It depends on whether or not you burn with desire. To answer this question, you have to be honest with yourself, about yourself. But in the big picture, because of the dangers of sexual immorality, it's better for most people to marry. God has given most people the grace of marriage, and not singleness. And trying to fight this, when God has given you the grace of marriage, is a bad idea. Sexual immorality will destroy you . So if you find yourself burning with desire, and struggling with sexual immorality, Paul gives you three commands. First, you must have a spouse. Second, you must have your spouse. And third, you must let your spouse have you. Appendix on 1 Cor. 7:14: The main alternative explanation for 1 Cor. 7:14, regarding holiness, is that of Jerome Murphy-O'Connor. Holiness is like righteousness, in that people are both made holy when they become Christians, and then called to live holy (1 Thess. 4:1-7; Romans 6:19-22). So sometimes, holiness is talked about as a positional truth (as in 1 Corinthians 1), and sometimes it's talked about as something you strive toward as the goal of the faith (1 Thess. 4:1-7; Rom. 6:19-22). The way systematic theologies neatly separate out "justification" (=made right) from "sanctification" (=made holy) really doesn't work in the NT. It's artificial. That much about holiness, everyone agrees on-- it's talked about as positional, and as something you must live as. What Murphy then says is that Paul is thinking of holiness here in terms of behavior. Your spouse, by consenting to live with you, is living as if they are dedicated to God. They are behaving as a holy person, committing to not divorcing you. And your children are also, objectively, living as holy people. You can look at them, and their budding faith and commitment to God, and say that they are living as holy people. But I don't think this is right. Mostly because of the "otherwise." If you divorce your unbelieving spouse, all of this changes for your children (and spouse). I think it's better to understand Paul's words as a motivation to not divorce, and as a focus on positional holiness. Positionally, because the two of you are one, your spouse is holy. And if you divorce your spouse, both your spouse and your children will lose their positional holiness.
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